Overdue Reviews: The Dragon Behind the Glass

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish, Emily Voigt

Published May 24th 2016 by Scribner

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

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A journalist’s quest to find a wild Asian arowana — the world’s most expensive aquarium fish—takes her on a global tour through the bizarre realm of ornamental fish hobbyists to some of the most remote jungles on the planet.

A young man is murdered for his prized pet fish. An Asian tycoon buys a single specimen for $150,000. Meanwhile, a pet detective chases smugglers through the streets of New York. Delving into an outlandish world of obsession, paranoia, and criminality, The Dragon Behind the Glass tells the story of a fish like none other. Treasured as a status symbol believed to bring good luck, the Asian arowana, or “dragon fish,” is a dramatic example of a modern paradox: the mass-produced endangered species. While hundreds of thousands are bred in captivity, the wild fish has become a near-mythical creature. From the South Bronx to Borneo and beyond, journalist Emily Voigt follows the trail of the arowana to learn its fate in nature.

With a captivating blend of personal reporting, history, and science, Voigt traces our fascination with aquarium fish back to the era of exploration when intrepid naturalists stood on the cutting edge of modern science, discovering new species around the globe. In an age when freshwater fish now comprise one of the most rapidly vanishing groups of animals, she unearths a surprising truth behind the arowana’s rise to fame—one that calls into question how we protect the world’s rarest species.

An elegant examination of the human conquest of nature, The Dragon Behind the Glass revels in the sheer wonder of life’s diversity and lays bare our deepest desire—to hold on to what is wild.

When I read the above blurb – a pet fish that people commit murder over! –  I knew I had to read this book.  What with life and babies and all I didn’t read this right away, but when I read mention of an arowana getting plastic surgery in Rich People Problems it sparked my memory and I knew I had to read the Dragon Behind the Glass soon.  And I learned Kevin Kwan didn’t make it up – people really are that extreme about the Asian Arowana!  

Once I started reading I was hooked!  (Also I’m clearly hilarious)  What started as one story in New York let Voigt into places that very few people travel to try to find the story of the wild arowana.   She follows both the collectors who want the fish for the prosperity it can bring and the scientists trying to study a possible new strain.   I know I am not such an explorer so it was fascinating reading how far the quest to see something new and wild would take Voigt and the biologists that she worked with.  I know I wouldn’t try to get into Burma just to catch a glimpse of a fish in its native environment! Especially for such an odd looking fish.  Fish conventions, fish nicknames, fish theft – quite a world out there.

Voigt also left me thinking more deeply than I expected about how we treat endangered or threatened species and how those animals end up on the list in the first place.  While I fear without an endangered list we would drive even more species to extinction she has me wondering if instead we do even more harm than good.  When my daughter and I took our usual turn around the fish department at the local pet store last week I definitely was looking at all those tanks differently.  

Thank you Scribner and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review: Britt-Marie Was Here

Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrick Backman

Publication: May 3rd 2016 by Atria Books

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

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Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. She eats dinner at precisely the right time and starts her day at six in the morning because only lunatics wake up later than that. And she is not passive-aggressive. Not in the least. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention.

But at sixty-three, Britt-Marie has had enough. She finally walks out on her loveless forty-year marriage and finds a job in the only place she can: Borg, a small, derelict town devastated by the financial crisis. For the fastidious Britt-Marie, this new world of noisy children, muddy floors, and a roommate who is a rat (literally), is a hard adjustment.

As for the citizens of Borg, with everything that they know crumbling around them, the only thing that they have left to hold onto is something Britt-Marie absolutely loathes: their love of soccer. When the village’s youth team becomes desperate for a coach, they set their sights on her. She’s the least likely candidate, but their need is obvious and there is no one else to do it.

Thus begins a beautiful and unlikely partnership. In her new role as reluctant mentor to these lost young boys and girls, Britt-Marie soon finds herself becoming increasingly vital to the community. And even more surprisingly, she is the object of romantic desire for a friendly and handsome local policeman named Sven. In this world of oddballs and misfits, can Britt-Marie finally find a place where she belongs?

Anyone who talks to me about books will realize I haven’t shut up about Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove.  That book touched my heart and since then Backman is someone I recommend often for an excellent and feel good read.  

I first met Britt-Marie in Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You I’m Sorry – and I wasn’t sure I was entirely a fan of her.  She’s a bit of a nag bag, to borrow Backman’s term, and not really a happy person.  But once you start to learn her story you see how Britt-Marie found herself slipping away and why she’s become so persnickety and prickly.  

Britt-Marie leaves her boorish husband Kent behind and takes the only job offered to her, heading the recreation center in the dying town of Borg.  Britt-Marie despises soccer, which of course is the one true love of the residents of Borg and she finds herself coaching the children’s soccer club so that they can play in a local tournament.  You can guess where this goes, but I don’t think you will be entirely correct.  

So was this a bit cheesy  – for sure.  Did I eat it up with a spoon and love it as it went down – completely.  Britt-Marie was not as curmudgeonly as my beloved Ove and perhaps not so complicated, but I still adored her in the end.  I will say Backman left me nervous until the very end about what lessons Britt-Marie had learned and how brave she could be.

So when you want a feel good read – no tears this time – read Britt-Marie Was Here!

Thank you Atria Books and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review!

Review: My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman

Published June 16th 2015 by Atria Books

Hardcover, 372 pages

Source: Library

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From the author of the internationally bestselling ‘A Man Called Ove’, a novel about a young girl whose grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters, sending her on a journey that brings to life the world of her grandmother’s fairy tales.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy, standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-men-who-want-to-talk-about-Jesus-crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s letters lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and totally ordinary old crones, but also to the truth about fairytales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

If you haven’t read A Man Called Ove I have to respectfully ask what the hell you’re waiting for?!  Frederik Backman broke my feelings into tiny pieces and he tried to do it again with last year’s My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You I’m Sorry.  I was afraid that Backman wouldn’t work magic twice and so I waited too long to pick this up. I was wrong.   

Elsa’s grandmother is batty – totally batty.  We meet Elsa and her Granny after they’ve broken into the zoo and granny has been arrested.  Not what you expect for a woman with her 7 (almost 8) year-old grandmother.  Elsa basically broke my heart.  She’s smart and precocious and she’s bullied and so lonely.  Granny tells her stories to help her to be brave and to fall asleep at night.  They journey every night to a fairy tale world with warriors and Beasts, dreams and magic.  Every child needs someone like Granny in their lives because she was brilliant and amazing.   

Having a grandmother is like having an army.  This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.

But then Granny dies.  Elsa is left friendless and without her champion.  Her mother is 8 months pregnant with her new half-sibling, affectionately called Halfie, and Elsa is excited but unsure of her place in her family.  Elsa and her Granny were neighbors in an apartment building of odd characters.  There’s Alf, who drives a cab; the boy with the syndrome; and Britt-Marie, who is a nag bag to name a few.  Granny leaves Elsa with a letter for one of these neighbors with an apology and ends up leading Elsa on a quest to find magic and friendship.  Once again Backman made me laugh out loud and cry while reading.  I loved how strong and brave Granny was and what she taught Elsa along the way. 

If I can’t convince you will all of the above let me leave you with this quote:

And there’s a Russian playwright who once said that if there’s a pistol hanging on the wall in the first act, it has to be fired before the last act is over.  

Any book that references Chekov’s gun on the wall has to be a winner!  Read it!  I didn’t make the mistake of waiting to read Backman’s next book.  I’ve already devoured his May 2016 release and will review it soon!  But I will say for now that you don’t want to miss it.  Backman is magic – if magic brings both tears and laughter while reading.

Review: Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink

Hardcover, 558 pages

Published September 10th 2013 by Crown

Source: Blogging for Books

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In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.

In a voice at once involving and fair, masterful and intimate, Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better. A remarkable book, engrossing from start to finish, Five Days at Memorial radically transforms your understanding of human nature in crisis.

I worked myself up to being extremely nervous before beginning Five Days at Memorial – this was a mistake on my part.  I was afraid this book was going to be an extremely emotional account of the days spent at Memorial Hospital following Hurricane Katrina.   What I found was a well balanced recounting of the history of the hospital, the time leading up to the storm, and riveting accounts of the medical staff and families inside Memorial Hospital.  This is not to say the book was without emotion, but Fink moved so quickly from person to person that I never felt too caught up in any one individual’s story or feelings.

I really don’t want to imagine myself in that powerless, stifling, and terrifying building but Fink nearly had me there in the minds of the nurses and physicians.  I cannot imagine the decisions they were forced to make about triage, evacuating patients, and about letting go of patients that were too sick to face the conditions outside Memorial – all while worrying about their own loved ones and homes.  I can’t stop talking about this book with my friends and family.  Fink brings you to see why the doctors and nurses felt they needed to make the decisions they did, but leaves the reader to wrestle with the implications of those decisions.   

Fink tells the stories without judgement and follows with important discussion about what we’ve learned since Katrina.  It was shocking to read that the same kinds of decisions about patient triage were made in New York facing Hurricane Sandy and I don’t know that we’re any more prepared for medical disasters today.  Pretty terrifying really.  What’s also so important is more discussion about end of life care and about what kind of life prolonging treatment we want for ourselves and our families.  We could be doing so much better.  I think my next non-fiction now has to be The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America.   It will be interesting to see how these two link up in my thoughts.  

4 stars!

Thank you Blogging for Books for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Therapeutic Reading: The Obsession

The Obsession, Nora Roberts

Hardcover, 464 pages

Published: April 12th 2016 by Berkley

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Source: ARC won from publisher giveaway

Naomi Bowes lost her innocence the night she followed her father into the woods. In freeing the girl trapped in the root cellar, Naomi revealed the horrible extent of her father’s crimes and made him infamous.

Now a successful photographer living under the name Naomi Carson, she has found a place that calls to her, thousands of miles away from everything she’s ever known. Naomi wants to embrace the solitude, but the residents of Sunrise Cove keep forcing her to open up—especially the determined Xander Keaton.

Naomi can feel her defenses failing, and knows that the connection her new life offers is something she’s always secretly craved. But as she’s learned time and again, her past is never more than a nightmare away.

It’s all very well and great to read deep and intense books like Hausfrau or Fates & Furies but sometimes all I really want is a Happy Ever After.  A glass of wine, alone time and a good story with romance and happiness in the end.  When I want reading for mood therapy I almost always turn to Nora Roberts.  Opening the mail to find this ARC a few days into January was like Christmas Day all over!

The Obsession continues my Nora streak of total happiness in a book.  Romance, murderous tension, just enough smut, plus talk of books and a true and loyal pooch.  I liked the slow buildup of the romance and the friendship between Naomi and Xander.  I think there could have been more to the mystery – it was actually a pretty short part of the book itself – but it was still satisfying in the end.  So when you need a happy read, I highly recommend the Obsession and a glass of wine – that’s my book therapy prescription!

4 stars!

Thank you Berkley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review!

review: what is not yours is not yours

what is not yours is not yours, helen oyeyemi

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published March 8th 2016 by Riverhead Books

Source: Galley giveaway from Publisher

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Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

My issue with short stories is often -What the heck?!  I want more!  Or often -What the heck – that was so short why was it a story?  

I definitely did not have that issue with this new collection by Helen Oyeyemi.  Some stories like “books and roses” or “drownings” I could have read much more of to get into the worlds she created.  I would love to know more about the wolf present in “dornicka and the st. martin’s day goose”.  But even though I would have read had I had more pages I was completely satisfied with what I read.  The stories were so rich and detailed and captivating.  Even while the puppets weren’t my favorite I still was swept up in the drama and the characters.  The magical realism in these stories definitely carried me away.

The writing was beautiful and mystical and I have so many questions about what I just read. Definitely a book I will be taking time to reread and savor.  The stories were both haunting and delightful.  I definitely will not be looking at my keys in the same way for a while.  

4 stars

Thank you Riverhead Books for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review and Giveaway: Locally Laid

Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-changing Egg Farm – from Scratch, Lucie Amundsen

Published March 1st 2016 by Avery

Hardcover, 336 pages

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When Lucie Amundsen had a rare night out with her husband, she never imagined what he’d tell her over dinner—that his dream was to quit his office job (with benefits!) and start a commercial-scale pasture-raised egg farm. His entire agricultural experience consisted of raising five backyard hens, none of whom had yet laid a single egg.

To create this pastured poultry ranch, the couple scrambles to acquire nearly two thousand chickens—all named Lola. These hens, purchased commercially, arrive bereft of basic chicken-y instincts, such as the evening urge to roost. The newbie farmers also deal with their own shortcomings, making for a failed inspection and intense struggles to keep livestock alive (much less laying) during a brutal winter. But with a heavy dose of humor, they learn to negotiate the highly stressed no-man’s-land known as Middle Agriculture. Amundsen sees firsthand how these midsized farms, situated between small-scale operations and mammoth factory farms, are vital to rebuilding America’s local food system.

With an unexpected passion for this dubious enterprise, Amundsen shares a messy, wry, and entirely educational story of the unforeseen payoffs (and frequent pitfalls) of one couple’s ag adventure—and many, many hours spent wrangling chickens.

Let me say I am firmly a city girl.  We sold my car, we take the el, we walk to the grocery, and we walk to school.  I may have shrieked when I had to pick up a baby chick for my daughter at the petting zoo last year.  Maybe.  Why I thought I should read a book about a chicken farm I really don’t know – but let me tell you I am so glad that I did!  I enjoyed it so much that along with Avery I’m giving away a copy – so read all the way down!

Lucie tells a great story of how her husband convinced her to go from a small backyard flock of 5 egg laying chickens to owning thousands on a rented Minnesota farm.  She was not an easy sell (I don’t blame her).  I enjoyed reading about their small triumphs and was frustrated at the bureaucracies and stumbling blocks on the way to production.  Locally Laid is a labor of love for Lucie’s family and that shines through their story.  

Lucie talked not just about her own story but how the industry has changed over decades and how poultry is treated.  She pointed out that most of the egg laying birds in this country NEVER GO OUTSIDE.  In their whole lives – how scary is that?  So aside from an entertaining personal story, Lucie got me thinking about where my food comes from and why buying local food is important.  It’s scary to think about all the mileage behind some of the food we eat!  

I may not be a farmer, but I do live in the Midwest and I love it here. This was an eye opening read for me about small agriculture vs. middle vs the giant ag corporations out there.  I think as things like genetically modified crops become more common and water and land run out these are really important things to think about and talk about.   I even put my money where my mouth is and tried a dozen LoLa eggs this weekend – they were delicious!  I’m very curious to follow Locally Laid and see how they do – and I am seriously tempted to order a t-shirt.   In the meantime I’m going to think a lot harder when I shop and I’m going to be counting down until it’s CSA and Farmer’s Market season in Chicago!  

Do you want to read Lucie’s story?  I’m giving away one copy of Locally Laid and a fun LoLa button.  Here is a Rafflecopter link to the giveaway.  Must be US based and no spam giveaway accounts!

Don’t you want to get Locally Laid?